| Winter Travel Guide 1996|
A vacation south of the border doesn't have to mean a mega-resort crammed with sedentary chaise-loungers. In Mexico, there are Pacific beach towns and mountain hideaways that you probably thought ceased to exist 20 years ago. In Costa Rica, you can hike, bike, dive, and fish in places the eco-crowds haven't found yet; in Belize, there are new jungle lodges and reefside resorts. The least-developed is Honduras, a mountain-and-rainforest refuge for the truly adventurous. Following are our picks of the region's best.
Now, thanks to fat-tired suspended mountain bikes and a mini-boom in accommodations in Batopilas, the ghost town 7,000 feet down and several climate zones deep, the Canyon is being explored as never before. It's a seven-hour trip by thrice-weekly bus from Creel, the easiest starting point. By bike, it takes more or less time, depending on you.
Stay in Creel the first night (at Margarita's, about $26 per person, $30 for two, including breakfast and dinner; 011-52-145-60245) and get your legs riding around this rustic logging town. The ride out to Cusarare Falls is an easy two-kilometer single-track that winds up at a 100-foot-high cascade.
There are zillions of other single-track trails all around Creel, but nothing equals the descent into Batopilas. The road down is paved now to the halfway point at La Casita, but the next 45 miles are the downhill of your dreams. The dramatic gorges are defined by twisted primeval rock formations, views to infinity, and cliff faces marked by sooty-mouthed caves--the temporary homes of wandering Tarahumara. Once you get to the bottom, you cross the river into town, past the ruins of a nineteenth-century hacienda, and curve into the main square outside the church--in the last century, it was lined with silver ingots whenever the Bishop would visit. There's no silver now, no bishop, and fewer than 1,000 people. But there's a fine hotel, the Riverside Lodge ($250 for two, including meals and guided hikes; 800-776-3942), a colonial-style hacienda surrounded by cliffs and mesas. From the lodge you can hike out to Satevü (about an hour), where a domed seventeenth-century cathedral stands, or to the tiny community of Cerro Colorado (about three hours).
For maps, bike rentals, repairs, tubes, and patch kits, or guided tours of Batopilas, contact Arturo Guti‹rrez at Expediciones Umarike (fax 145-60212).
The Pacific Coast
Sayulita is Surf City circa 1962, with long- and short-boarders working the waves together in uncrowded camaraderie. Throw in horseback-riding trips into the jungle, great snorkeling off the rocks, kayaking, mountain biking, and superb fishing, and you wonder why anyone would pass this up for over-priced faux-Thai food in Puerto Vallarta. You can get the full athletic treatment at Costa Azul Adventure Resort (doubles, $65-$98; 800-365-7613), a five-acre jungle-beach compound with only 28 rooms in the neighboring village of San Francisco. You can plot your own adventure, or sign on for one of their all-inclusive package deals ($76-$98 per person per night for surfing, kid's adventure camp, honeymoon, or adventure packages).
Or, for the ultimate insider's experience, there's Casa ParaŒso (call Margaret Gillham at Lones Travel, 800-458-2878), a spacious, terraced home clinging to a pristine section of coast about 15 minutes south of the village. It's not cheap--packages run $1,500 to $4,500 a week--but the higher price includes three separated terraced villas, all food and non-alcoholic drinks, full-time service (maid, houseboy, cook, chauffeur), and a huge open-air palapa living-dining room that feels like a jungle tree house. There's a pool just a dozen steps above the private sandy beach, where there's excellent snorkeling (manta rays, turtles, rockfish) and surfing. In winter the open ocean out front is full of porpoises and migrating orcas, breaching and spouting.
The minuscule village of La Manzanilla sits in the heart of the Costa Alegre, the "happy coast" of Jalisco. Dwarfed by the giant resorts of Careyes (Club Med, Bel-Air, etc.) to the north and the small-but-growing-fast Barra de Navidad to the south, it's the best place to explore the still-virgin coves and reefs of Tenacatita Bay. There are some great waves for surfers, but also a long stretch of soft sand where bodyboarding and bodysurfing are superb. Around the rocks at either end of the bay are dozens of safe, close-in snorkeling and spear-fishing spots. You can stay in a beach-side bungalow in the heart of town (look for the "bungalows/restaurant" sign at the beach in town; $15-$30 a night, no phone) or, if you're lucky, unpack at El Mar, the front villa at Casa Maguey ($50 a night; phone/fax 335-15012), perched like a cormorant's nest on the cliff above the village's main playa. The decor is tasteful, and the views are as close as the hovering pelicans just off the terrace, as distant as the green flash of the sun as it drops behind the curve of the Pacific.
Casa Maguey has kayaks, snorkeling gear, a water-ski boat, and wake-surfing boards for guests, and can put you in contact with locals for horseback rides into the jungle or informal tours of the nearby lagoon to see crocodiles, flamingos, spoonbills, and herons.
Backroads: El BajŒo-Pozos-Cieneguitas
Pozos is a unique window on Mexico's past, a ghost town littered with scores of dramatic fallen-in haciendas, abandoned gold mines, and cobblestone streets empty of cars or people. Which is why the Casa Mexicana ($45 per person, including meals; 468-83030) is such a surprise. It's a tiny boutique hotel with great service, wonderful decor (Picasso lithographs!), and a fantastic blend of nouvelle and traditional Mexican cuisine. People come from San Miguel (an hour by car, the last 20 minutes on a dirt road) simply for lunch. Wiser folk come for long weekends, renting bikes in San Miguel (from Bici Burros, $20 per day; 415-21526) to check out the countryside and the ruins. The ride up to La Iglesia de Santa Cruz, the local patron saint's church situated 1,200 feet above town, is a grinding two-hour climb that pays off with 50-mile views and a screamer of a downhill back. The nearby Cinco Seores, a 100-plus-acre walled compound, has multiple ruins dating from the mid-nineteenth century, including a Presidio where gold miners and merchants would make their last stop before venturing into the unprotected countryside. There's hiking up to a pure-water spring (about four miles), horseback riding to Chichimecan villages within about ten miles of the compound, and mountain-bike trails in every direction.
Close to San Miguel is El Viejo Balneario Cieneguitas, known to locals simply as Lucky's (sleeps four-six; $60 per couple, two-day minimum stay, includes all meals; 415-21687 or 21599; email@example.com). Built around four natural mineral baths, two outdoors and two enclosed, the half-acre compound is shaded by towering mesquite trees flanked by grassy walkways. Although San Miguel is only 20 minutes away (10 by regular bus service), the mood here is defined by the nearby RŒo Laja and its Audubon-designated nature site. Northern harriers, vermillion flycatchers, white-faced ibis, stilts, and avocets cluster along the banks of the river, only vanishing when the village women come to do their laundry. There's also a sweat lodge, and four good mountain bikes available. Be sure to take advantage of the trails around Cieneguitas; most mountain bikers coming out of San Miguel make it only this far, so starting from here gives you much greater freedom. Just a 40-minute ride away is the baroque church of Atotonilco, recently designated a "World Treasure" by the U.N. and a major pilgrimage site for self-flagellating devotees. Across the river, trails through the fields lead to Cruz del Palmar and the remains of a Chichimecan pyramid. After a day of biking or horseback riding (good horses are available from ZayŒn; 2.5- to 3.5-hour tour, $30; overnight, $75-$100; call 415-23620), the warm waters of Lucky's baths are the perfect complement.
Rough terrain can make getting around difficult, so for visits of under two weeks, most people use a tour company to put together an itinerary. In the U.S. two of the more knowledgeable companies are Costa Rica Experts (800-827-9046) and Costa Rica Connection (800-345-7422). In Costa Rica, talk to Horizontes (011-506-222-2022) and Costa Rica Expeditions (257-0766).
Whitewater Rafting Even in the dry season, whitewater rafting in Costa Rica is a world-class thrill sport, with levels of difficulty ranging up to Class V. Go with RŒos Tropicales, the king of Costa Rican paddle sports (233-6455). If you do only one river it should be the Pacuare (Class III-IV). It's only a day trip from San Jos‹ ($90, including transportation and lunch), but it traverses some of the prettiest jungle in Costa Rica. Blue morpho butterflies will flutter ahead of you in the narrow gorges. You'll shoot in and out of waterfalls that drop into the river from high above. And you'll ride rapids that will make what the screaming people do on the roller coaster at Space Mountain seem like whispering at the library.
Boardsailing One of Costa Rica's newest sports, but gaining an international reputation, is boardsailing on 24-mile-long Lake Arenal, about 85 miles northwest of San Jos‹. The three-foot waves that can develop keep Arenal from ranking with Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, but not by much. High-wind season is November to March, when the breeze often funnels across the lake with such velocity that you don't want to go out without first double-checking the drawstring on your bathing suit. Base yourself at the Hotel Tilawa (doubles, $65 per day; board rental, $45 per day; 695-5050), a windsurfing resort at the opposite end of the lake from the Arenal Volcano that, yes, was intentionally built to look like the ancient Palace of Knossos, on the island of Crete.
Surfing Surfers have been making use of Costa Rica's 735 miles of coastline for so long that it's almost surprising to hear that the first visitor of record, Christopher Columbus, didn't have a board with him. Most of the classic breaks are on the Pacific side, with the area around Playa Tamarindo, in the north, being a favorite. Tamarindo village itself has too many places to stay and eat and party that cost more than they should, so after grabbing a killer burger at the Junglebus, head south 12 miles to isolated Playa Junquillal. The Iguanazul Hotel (doubles, $60; 232-1423) sits on a bluff high above the beach and gets you into the morning surf long before the party-hearty folks coming out from Tamarindo. For more wide-ranging surf trips, call Surf Express (407-779-2124). They're based in Florida, but know Costa Rica and surfing so well that you can comfortably begin your conversation with "Buenos dŒas, dude."
Hiking Some of the best hiking in Costa Rica is 100 miles southeast of San Jos‹ in Corcovado National Park on the wild Osa Peninsula, whose biologically diverse population includes big cats and illegal gold miners. A good base for day hikes or multi-day trips throughout the park is Costa Rica Expeditions' Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp (doubles, $68 per person, including all meals; 257-0766), so remote that, after being deposited at the nearest jungle airstrip, you still have a 45-minute walk. A favorite trip is the overnight hike from the tent camp north to the ranger station at Sirena. Most of the hike is along a surf-pounded Pacific beach beneath a canopy alive with monkeys and scarlet macaws. The ranger station provides meals--anything you want, as long as it's rice and beans and fish--for $16 per day for three meals. Reservations are required (735-5036).
Horseback Riding Most of the horseback riding in Costa Rica is on jungle trails, and the only skill needed is the ability to accept that the horse is smarter than you, and has no intention of sliding down the side of a mountain. The best riding, and the best horses, are in the "Wild West" ranching country of Guanacaste in the northwest. Los Inocentes Lodge (doubles, $112, including meals; 265-5484), at the northern edge of Guanacaste National Park, offers rides ($15 per day, $25 with lunch) that include a view of the cloud-capped OrosŒ Volcano and a chance to spot rare spider monkeys. The lodge is a classic, built in 1890 of local hardwoods as the main house for a large cattle ranch. Beautifully renovated, its best feature is still the wide veranda, where, if you're whiling away a pleasant afternoon in one of the rocking chairs and the talk turns to politics, it's best to keep in mind that the lodge was built by the grandfather of Nicaragua's current president.
Scuba Diving The best place to scuba dive in Costa Rica--in fact, one of the best in the world if you like to swim with sharks that have attitude--is Isla de Cocos, 300 miles off the Pacific Coast. But if you've only got a week or two, stick to the mainland. Most of the diving is done along the northern Pacific coast, but in the winter you'll find clearer water at Isla de Cano, near Drake Bay, in the south. As with most Costa Rica diving, there's not much coral but plenty of sea life, including schools of big manta rays. Stay at the Èguila de Osa Inn (doubles, $100 per person, meals included; two-tank dive, $110; 232-7722), in Drake Bay, where Cookie the chef serves up fish almost as fresh as those you'll see on your dive.
Fishing There's tarpon and snook on the Caribbean side around Tortuguero. And some anglers are so single-mindedly focused on Lake Arenal's rainbow bass that they have been known not to notice that the volcano is erupting. But what really hooks fishermen in Costa Rica are the Pacific ocean billfish, especially sailfish, which they're willing to spend $400-$800 a day to pursue. Flamingo and Tamarindo are becoming the centers of activity, but in winter, when the sea kicks up a bit, many boats move down to the more sheltered Quepos, where the 36-foot Dorado IV (253-6713) hooked and released 100 sailfish in three days last season.
The Cloud Forest Even if your attitude is that one nature preserve has the same dumb plants and bugs as another, a Costa Rican experience not to be missed is a trip to a cloud forest, where dampness is a virtue. The most famous is Monteverde, about 110 miles northwest of San Jos‹, still a misty wonderland even if the iridescently green resplendent quetzal and other wildlife have largely fled before the hordes who have come to admire them. A good alternative is the nearby Santa Elena Forest Reserve, three miles farther up the rough mountain road, where you have a better chance of seeing not only quetzals and 400 other species of birds, but also sloth, deer, ocelots, and monkeys. You can go without a guide, but that would be the cloud-forest equivalent of experiencing Times Square blindfolded.
Take one of the guided tours that start at the visitor's center (645-5238), where you would also be wise to rent a pair of rubber boots. Stay at the Monteverde Lodge (doubles, $93; 257-0766). It's just 15 minutes from the Santa Elena Reserve, and has an atrium Jacuzzi where you can sit and recount the day's events with up to 14 of your newest friends.
Volcano-Watching Even more than quetzals and blue morpho butterflies, the visual stunner in Costa Rica is the almost continuously active Arenal Volcano. Nighttime is the best time to observe it, when flowing lava often puts on an action-flick-quality sound and light show. Unless you want to become tourist on toast, don't even think about trying to climb the volcano's slopes. But you'll feel like you're practically on them from some of the rooms at the Arenal Observatory Lodge (doubles, $55-$110; 257-9489), which was originally built for volcano watchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Costa Rica. The lodge, accessible only by four-wheel-drive from the village of Fortuna, is so close to the volcano that on occasion the rooms allow you, finally, to feel the earth move while you're in bed
The Western Jungle
New this year at Chaa Creek Lodge (doubles, $115; 011-501-92-2037), two hours from Belize City, is the Macal River Camp ($45 per person, including breakfast and dinner), a ten-tent camp buried in jungle high above the river along a bluff, half a mile from the main lodge. It's plenty private here and not too rough: Tents are spacious, the cots comfy, the kitchen fashioned with an open hearth. Activities include river rafting, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, day trips to the Mayan ruins at Caracol (about two and a half hours away via a dirt road; $260 for one to four people), and exploring the Rainforest Medicine Trail next door to Chaa Creek. Or check out Chaa Creek's new (since 1995) Natural History Centre and Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding Centre. There's also a Butterfly House, built for the scientist who started the breeding center but now open to guests, with solar electricity and kitchen ($115, double occupancy).
In western Belize's Mountain Pine Ridge area, a two-hour trip from Belize City down a marle-and-dirt road off the Western Highway, are two luxury lodges. More established is the Hidden Valley Inn (doubles, $122 through mid-December, including breakfast; $181 after mid-December, including breakfast and dinner; 800-334-7942), with handsome stucco cottages and a main house set beneath a mantle of mountain pines. Other exclusive digs can be found at Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge (doubles, $115 through mid-December, $160 mid-December through mid-May; 92-3878), which has its own airstrip and hydroelectric plant, and a pizza oven flown in specially from Italy.
Lamanai Outpost Lodge (doubles, $105; 23-3578) in northern Belize is more remote. You can get there by road, but it's usually reached by a one-hour pontoon boat ride (included in package prices, otherwise it's $75) along the New River from the Mennonite village of Shipyard, past long-nosed bats dozing in hollow tree trunks and women scrubbing their clothes along the riverbank. (A newly carved airstrip at Lamanai brings chartered flights from Belize City, but the arrival is not nearly as atmospheric.) The outpost's simple wood and palm-thatch cabanas are next door to 3,500-year-old Lamanai, a Mayan maze of wildly adorned temples and hundreds of other structures. Explore the ruins (guided tours, $22 per person), then take a guided orchid, birding, or medicinal plant tour (about $17). After dark, don't miss the Spotlight River Safari ($29), during which the guide trains his big light on all the crocodile eyes.
Reefs, Cayes, and Cloud Forests
Other accommodations in Southern Belize: Jaguar Reef Lodge (doubles, $75 through October; $120 November through mid-May; 92-3452), a stylish eco-retreat of beachfront duplexes fashioned from Belizean hardwood. Opened in late 1995, it's one of the few places in Belize with instant access to both reef and rainforest. Join a dive (two-tank dive, $70) or kayak trip, or a guided hike to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary ($42), following logging trails through the dense glade past waterfalls, red-eyed tree frogs, and glistening fungi resembling seashells. Back at Jaguar Reef Lodge, take a mountain-bike ride (bikes provided at no charge) to the nearby Garifuna village of Hopkins, watching for the jaguars that prowl the forests.
New lodges seem to open every month on Ambergris Caye, largest and most developed of the Belize cayes--and the fastest-growing place in the country. Among the new expatriate-run digs on Ambergris: Coconuts Caribbean Hotel (doubles, $75 through mid-November, $105 mid-November through April, continental breakfast included; 800-324-6974) with 12 comfortable rooms facing sea and sand; and Belizean Reef Suites (one-bedroom suites for up to four guests, $100 through mid-November, $125 mid-November through April; 26-2582). In the works for future lodgers: a $250 million resort and casino, sure to change the low-key Ambergris lifestyle-- in other words, get there fast.
Snorkelers will love Ambergris Caye and its clear, shallow waters. The best snorkel stops: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where channel walls are layered with moray eels; Mexican Rocks, a galaxy of flamboyant coral formations; and Shark-Ray Alley sandbar, whose eight-foot-deep waters are thronged by docile stingrays and nurse sharks.
Scuba divers should head out to Lighthouse Reef Resort (one-week minimum stay; weekly packages from $1,350 per person, double occupancy, including meals, dives, and round-trip flight from Belize City; 800-423-3114). This is the only lodge within the seriously remote Lighthouse Reef atoll, known for its wonderful walls, wrecks, and the Blue Hole, whose dim, eerie recesses harbor albino sharks and other strange sinkhole sealife. Roomy beachfront cabanas are strewn along a powdery stretch of sand.
Last spring, residents of Las MarŒas, a Pech and Miskito village on the RŒo Pl¤tano, began organizing a rotation of forest and river guides to help independent travelers visit the RŒo Pl¤tano Biosphere Reserve, an 800,000-hectare section of virgin jungle in the heart of La Mosquitia that stretches from the Olancho Mountains all the way to the Caribbean coast. To get to Las MarŒas, hop a short flight ($60 round-trip on Islea or Rollins Airlines) from the coastal city of Palacios at the western edge of La Mosquitia near the RŒo Pl¤tano. In Palacios, speak to Don Felix M¤rmol at the Islea office; he can help you find a boat to take you across a lagoon and upriver to Las MarŒas (five to eight hours round trip; $90-$120, depending on your negotiating skills).
In Las MarŒas--a large group of thatched huts cut out of the jungle on the edge of the river--look for MartŒn Herrera, who can show you where to find food, a bed, and guides. Two recommended trips are a three- to four-day hike up Pico Dama, the 2,755-foot mountain looming over the jungle south of Las MarŒas, with fantastic views in all directions (guides, $6 per day); or a one- to two-day canoe ride upriver to the petroglyphs at Wal'pulban'sirpi and Wal'pulban'tara, and into the jungle beyond ($25 per day for two).
Another way to explore the region is an epic two-week journey from Dulce Nombre de CulmŒ in the Olancho Mountains in north-central Honduras, and down the RŒo Pl¤tano by a combination of rafting and hiking with Mosquitia wildman Jorge Zalavery. You'll see monkeys, tapirs, birds of all colors, and, if you're lucky, one of the many jungle cats of the region--and then raft the white-water stretches of the river cutting through the jungle.
After leaving the last settlement in Olancho, the only signs of humanity before reaching Las MarŒas are several mysterious pre-Columbian ruins, thought to be of Mayan origin. The two-week trip costs $1,116 per person for groups of four to six; contact La Moskitia EcoAventuras, 21-040444; fax 21-0408.
Montaas de Celaque
Just last year, the Honduran Forestry Service finished marking a five-mile trail into the forest from the colonial town of Gracias, making Celaque easily accessible to hikers. Go to the Gracias forestry office to get a topo map of the trails and campsites, then walk or drive the five and a half miles to the visitors' center at the base of the mountain (beds available; $2 park entry fee; rides from Gracias for $4 per person can be arranged at Restaurante Guancasco on the town square). From the visitors' center it's six to eight hours of steep and slippery hiking to the top of Cerro de las Minas, the highest point in the country at 9,345 feet. Round trip could be done in two days, but it's better to spend a couple of nights at one of the two campsites on the mountain. After returning to Gracias and soaking your stiff bones in the local hot spring, you can spend a couple of days touring the nearby colonial mountain villages of La Campa, San Manuel Colohuete, and Bel‹n Gualcho.
Lenca Land Trails, a tour operator in Santa Rosa de Cop¤n, offers excellent five-day hiking tours from Bel‹n Gualcho across the entire Celaque range, coming out again at Gracias (about $200, everything included; contact Max Elvir at the Hotel Elvir in Santa Rosa de Cop¤n; 62-0103 or 62-0805). It rains frequently in this area, so be sure to bring along some rain gear.